August 31. 2013 3:07AM

Pollination in Portsmouth

Strawbery Banke's honey project spurred by bees' sharp decline

Sunday News Correspondent

Strawbery Banke Museum beekeeper Dan Smith demonstrates the process of harvesting honey, starting with scraping the hard, outer wax layer from the comb to reveal the sweet treat underneath. (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)

PORTSMOUTH --- As beekeeper Dan Smith slides his scraper down the edge of a simple wooden frame filled with honeycomb, the amber ooze of the natural sweetener is revealed.

Honeybees at Strawbery Banke Museum have spent months gathering the nectar, and filling and capping the combs that Smith harvested on Wednesday.

It has been a good year for honey production at Strawbery Banke, and Smith, like many beekeepers, is happy to see it for reasons beyond just the delicious end product.

Honeybees are key pollinators for the area's vibrant flowers and herbs, as well as for food production, and their numbers nationally have been in rapid decline.

For the last 15 years, Smith has been trying to raise honeybees on his own, often learning what works at the expense of the bees.

The two hives he cared for at Strawbery Banke in the Abbott Orchard survived the winter, but his two hives at home, moved to a windy hill for sunlight earlier in the fall, did not fare so well.

This is the second year Strawbery Banke has kept bees and harvested the honey flow. Smith collected about 50 pounds of the sweet stuff, which will be for sale in 8-ounce jars in the museum store until they sell out.

Keeping bees is in keeping with Strawbery Banke's mission of presenting Colonial history, Smith said. He still uses a manually operated machine, although his is modern stainless steel, and he raises the bees naturally, without any chemicals. Honey also was used as a primary sweetener alongside molasses in Colonial times.

The bees collect nectar from and help pollinate the many varied heirloom and heritage plants at the museum, and they will fly up to seven miles to get to flowers they like.

Smith said there is no doubt the bees encounter some plants that have been sprayed with pesticides. "You can't control what happens outside the boundaries," he said.

Until people start realizing how big the bee decline problem is for food production, he said, nothing will change. He hopes the hives at the museum will lead to greater awareness about the importance of bees - locally and around the world.